Ten top stories from Classic Doctor Who
The DVDs to watch to celebrate 50 years of Tardis travel
The City of Death
Picture a man reaching up to grasp the skin of his face... and pulling the flesh away to reveal a single widely open eye staring out of a mass of bright green seaweed. Yeah, on TV in 1979 it wasn’t how you picture it now, but that’s the defining image of the David Fisher written, Douglas Adams edited City of Death.
The being in question is Scaroth, last of the Jaggaroth, friend of the Buggeroff and fragmented temporally by his exploding starship. His solution: work with his many separate selves - they’re connected telepathically, kind of - to evolve the human race to the point at which it can develop time travel. Then he can go back and prevent the explosion. Easy.
Fighting for the survival of a species: Jaggaroth vs humanity
Except the Doctor figures out the explosion is the trigger that starts the human race by causing the basic building blocks of life to form and kick-start evolution.
It’s a great plot, driven along by Adams’ humour - he was working on the Hitch-hiker’s Guide radio series around this time - and its Parisian setting, for once shot for real rather than in mock-up. The Doctor and Romana have a laugh; their sidekick, Duggan, gets to throw the most important punch in history; the Mona Lisa gets stolen and then found half a dozen times over; and there’s even a cameo from John Cleese.
Doctor Who had become downright daft during the late 1970s. City of Death gets a bit silly too, but it’s all done with such joie de vivre, it works.
Historical stories were a key part of Doctor Who’s early years and the product of the production team’s brief to make use of the Tardis’ ability to travel in time as well as space. Of course, it quickly became clear that kids really wanted the sci-fi stuff not the often dry purely historical episodes.
Over time, Doctor Who production teams attempted to make the historicals more interesting, most commonly by doing them as comedies, but eventually they got knocked on the head after Patrick Troughton story The Highlanders in 1967. 1982’s Black Orchid was a once only attempt to try the format out. There have been none since. Yes, the Doctor travels into Earth’s past, but it’s always just another exotic backdrop to the SF.
Lionheart: William Hartnell and Julian Glover as the first Doctor and Richard I
But if the pure historical format failed, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some gems among them. Undoubtedly the best is The Crusade, set in the Holy Land between the rival armies of Richard the Lionheart and Saladdin. The strength of David Whitaker’s script lies in its maturity. It treats both sides equally - this is no comic strip conflict between heroic Anglos and shifty Arabs.
It also puts the female characters on more even footing with the male ones. Jean Marsh’s Joanna, Richard I’s sister, chafes at the role life as royal has thrust upon her, and Tardis traveller Barbara gets the rough end of the stick at the hands of the nasty Emir El Akir.
Unfortunately, the BBC wiped The Crusade master tape many years ago, and only two episodes have been discovered and returned to the archive. But the soundtrack exists in its entirety. If you’re after something to watch as well as listen to, The Aztecs is another of the better historicals. It nicely combines a splendidly villainous John Ringham channelling Lawrence Olivier as chief priest Tlotoxl with a serious consideration of the impact of travelling in time and messing about with history.